Thursday, January 17, 2008

"I'm Lovin' It!": McDonald's, Indexing, and Homesickness

Dave has been madly indexing his book for the past couple of days. This entails using a program that pulls up a phenomenally huge amount of subjects and their corresponding pages. Once that is done, Dave has to go through all the entries, letter by letter, and decide which to keep, how to organize the subjects, what to cross-reference, etc. It is long and dirty work. He's doing remarkably well for having had very little sleep the last couple of nights. The only breaks he's taking are for meals and ice skating (the latter being the reason I'm making two posts right now--I don't get any exercise, but I get to write a little).

Last night Jed dropped by while Dave was up working late. (Dave is using Vanetta's apartment while she's gone so he has a modicum of peace and quiet in which to work. Jed's apartment is just across from Vanetta's.) Anyway, Jed brought Dave a "pie" from McDonald's. I just had to take a picture of it when I saw it:

I don't know if you can see what kind of pie it is: "Red Bean Pie". Not your usual McDo fare. The bag sports the "Beijing 2008" Olympics logo that you see everywhere here. And of course, the bag also shows lots of athletes, all of whom I am sure eat at McDonald's whenever they can.

I would have thought that with only six weeks to go I wouldn't have to deal with homesickness anymore. And frankly, it hasn't reared its ugly head for a long time now--maybe a month? That has to be a record. But today it came back with a vengeance and who did it hit? Me! Crazy. So I did what any sane person would do on a gray, cold day a bazillion miles away from friends and family: I baked a huge pile of oatmeal cookies. It's not even so much that I want to eat them--I just wanted the house to smell good and I love seeing the kids get excited about having a cookie treat in the afternoon. For the record, I also gave half of the total batch to Jed who is leaving tonight with a friend on an overnight train ride to Beijing. Cookies on the train, yum!

We are leaving for Xi'an and Shanghai next Monday, January 21. We'll probably take our computer along, if only to have someplace to load our pictures when the camera fills up. I don't know if we'll find internet access, though, so we may be silent until the end of the month. If this ends up happening, be assured that we will have plenty of stories and photos to share with you when we get back.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From Cinnamon Rolls to Sticky Rice

The semester has finally come to an end here. Dave gave his final last Friday and submitted his grades on Sunday morning. This seems especially quick but he had two great incentives: he wanted to see the Seahawks/Packers game on Sunday morning without the specter of grading hanging over him, and he has a walloping amount of work ahead of him to get the index on his book done before we leave on the 21
st for Xi’an (we also have a language teacher in the family who was able to help him out quite a bit!). I figured I’d sweeten the whole deal by offering to bake cinnamon rolls for the game.

Dave and Tad got up before the crack of dawn to set up Tad’s computer. Tad figured out a way to actually stream the game, commercials and all. Tad, by the way, is an avid Packers fan. The kids defected to Tad’s side because it’s an awful lot of fun to annoy Dad by wearing green and yellow and chanting various poetic beauties made up on the spot (on the order of “How do you spell success? P-A-C-K-E-R-S!”). The whole streaming thing worked like a charm—the game, the snow, the commercials (my first taste of reverse culture shock), the agony of defeat—all came out crystal clear. Well, at any rate, as clear as a snowstorm in Wisconsin in January can look.

The whole set up couldn’t have been more surreal. I mean, we sat in front of a computer watching American football and American commercials (it was the abundance of commercials for debit cards and Visa cards that most surprised me, besides the requisite charmers touting the superiority of one weak, insipid beer over another weak, insipid beer. I had forgotten how much consumption rules the day over there, but of course it does here, too, only in hard cash and Chinese, so I have no idea what the commercials are saying.), with Hohhot just waking up outside, going about it’s normal early morning routine. By the time the game was over, we all felt strung out from the early wake-up, the Seahawk defeat, and the sugar.

Speaking of sugar, has anyone ever read the Little Pear books (other than the Stones, who introduced them to us)? They were written by Eleanor Frances Lattimore in the early part of the 20th century and they follow the exploits and daily life of a little boy. One thing that left an impression on us in those books was Little Pear’s favorite treat: candied crabapples lined up on a stick like a shish kabob. We’ve always wondered about those. Anyway, we’ve seen a lot of candied fruit on sticks but haven’t tried them yet—I am still a little gun-shy about street food, which I realize is ridiculous both because our stomachs have definitely adapted and also because I buy baked sweet potatoes off the street with nary a glance at the general cleanliness or lack thereof of the cooking barrel. On Tuesday Samuel, Grace, and I noticed a huge stand of these goodies on Mongolian Street and finally we just had to try them out.

Crabapple and banana on top right, orange slices on the bottom row.

The kids each got candied orange slices and I got crabapples split in half with a banana slice wedged in the middle of each apple. They are thick with a sticky syrup that stays hard in the cold. The vendor wrapped each stick in rice paper to keep it from sticking to the “to go” bag. The final verdict on these delicacies? Spectacular! The kids’ oranges were pretty juicy and Grace found it too sweet, but my crabapple stick was a terrific combination of sweet and tart, and Samuel wolfed down his stick (predictably, he also asked if he could keep the stick which has an extremely sharp point at one end—boys!). And yes, you can eat the rice paper, too. It just melts in your mouth and saves you the trouble of trying to peel it off of the syrup coating.

Some of my favorite things to complain about—at least in the privacy of our apartment, and in emails to some of you who are lucky enough to get to hear me gripe—have been the dust, the incessantly dirty floors, and the bathroom. I mean, I not only cannot seem to get a handle on any of the above, much less keep them under control to my satisfaction, I can’t even seem to find the inspiration to attempt to tackle them on anything other than a most superficial level. This has lead to a proliferation of dust bunnies everywhere I don’t feel like looking: mixed in with all the power-cords on either desk, under the beds, couch, and chairs, on the bookshelf. Basically, everywhere. This isn’t your garden variety dust, either. It sneaks in from somewhere (outside? inside? Mars?) and stays put. Our t.v. has had a healthy dust colony growing on its back since day 1. And even though we try to keep all street shoes out in the hall, gunk tracks in onto the tile floor and settles in. Dust and kid stuff and goop and who knows what else—it’s everywhere and I can’t seem to master it.

Where is all this leading, you ask? Ah, well, since the American teachers in the building are now all gone to Thailand and their various side trips for the next month, the lady who cleans their apartments is short on cash. This lead Dave to spearhead an effort to get her to come to our place Tuesday afternoon and kill two birds with one stone (or dust rag): help her out financially and get me to stop complaining. Li came over Tuesday and spent 2 ½ hours dusting and cleaning the floors. I have never had a cleaning lady before—nor will I ever again after this—but I have to say, I never felt so happy as I did when she started in on cleaning this place and I took off to go ice skating with the kids. It’s hard to explain, but it just felt good to not have to do it myself for once—or tell someone to do it and hope it gets done—and I got to go have fun. Needless to say, she will be coming twice a week now for the rest of our time here. Dust bunnies beware!

Wednesday afternoon we went to a Mongolian wedding! Ha Si (pronounced “Ha suh”) works at the International Exchange College where Dave taught. Although we can’t speak with each other without an interpreter, Dave and I have always felt very warm towards him. He’s a really nice guy. I understand that weddings themselves are usually a civil ceremony; what we were invited to was actually the reception at a large Mongolian restaurant in the north end of town. When we got to the restaurant, Ha Si and his wife greeted us and the other guests at the door, dressed in traditional ceremonial Mongolian clothing.

The happy couple at the door.

We were seated at the front of the room in a set-up similar to the other banquets we’ve attended—lots of round tables in a large room, with a stage at one end of the room. Our table was in front of the stage and we, along with Karen and Tyler, were the only foreigners there. Many of our friends and Dave’s colleagues from the IEC were there, along with, of course, friends and family of the bride and groom.

Athena (in black hat), Helen (middle), and Wu Yunna (on the right)

At our table--unfortunately Grace is washed out by the sun, but you get the idea.

The man on the right is a professor at IMNU--he served as master of ceremonies for the reception. The bride is a horse-head fiddle teacher; I heard some of the musicians are her students.

Another view of the stage and some more wonderful outfits.

The couple on stage.

Our table! Lots of vegetables, mutton, pork, rice, duck, and sweet sticky rice in the pumpkin in back--the latter is traditional wedding fare.

Like many wedding receptions, there was music, singing, speeches, and lots and lots of good food. The wonderful thing about this reception is that it was mostly Mongolian music, singing, and food. We really enjoyed ourselves immensely. And in a curious “closing of the loop”, when a sheep’s back was brought out to the front of the room for ceremonial purposes (similar to the sheep’s head way back in August that so completely undid Samuel) Samuel hardly even blinked. Granted, a cooked sheep’s back doesn’t quite compare to a head with empty sockets sitting right in front of you on the table, but still, neither Samuel nor Grace had any complaints about anything other than the volume of the music which made their chests thump from the reverberations out of the speakers. Dave and I loved it and I only wish I could share the music with you—the throat singing was absolutely phenomenal.

Our family, the bride and groom, Tyler and Malicha, and Karen. Notice the picture hanging on the curtains in back? Many people have their wedding pictures taken in traditional Western attire (tux and white gown). I have to admit I prefer the Mongolian clothing for beauty and character.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Competing for Computer Time

Just a head's up: Dave is now thick into indexing his book (the final stage before it is published this spring) which means that I have got to start being creative about finding time to post. For example, I sent him out this early morning to search for bai zi and bao zi for breakfast, buying me about 10 minutes to write, check my email, and search for national weather temperatures for Samuel's math lesson today. I'll find time soon to write, especially as we're leaving next Monday for our 10-day traveling and I may not be able to have computer access.

In the meantime, we're heading off to a Mongolian/Chinese wedding today at noon. I'll definitely get pictures up soon!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"Samuel's Army" and "Knuckleheads"

Last week Dave and the kids came home from ice skating: “How was it?” I asked. Dave told me that Samuel had organized a group of about 15-20 kids (“Samuel’s Army” he called it)—they hung out around the edges of the skating rink, snowballs in furry mittened hands. “As I skated around the rink, little kids would pop out from behind the snow banks and throw snowballs at me. The worst were the little girls. They’d skate out in front of me, all cute and sweet, then take aim and hurl a snowball at me.” I love the image of Dave, trying to perfect his technique (stopping and turning sharply continue to elude us both), dodging snowballs at every turn.

Today Samuel and Grace burst into the apartment after a couple hours of skating. “Mom!” exclaimed Samuel, “They were a bunch of knuckleheads!” “What? Who?” I said. Grace piped in, “Yeah, three girls…” “About 9 or 10 years old!” interrupted Samuel, throwing off his coat, bright red cheeks stretched in a broad grin even as he tried to look disgusted. “Oh,” I replied, “more kids trying to bombard Dad?” “No!” said Grace. “They were blowing kisses at Samuel and they wouldn’t leave him alone!” “Knuckleheads!” repeated Samuel, “They’re crazy!” At this he put his finger to his temple and tapped his head over and over again to illustrate just how crazy he thought these girls were. Oh Samuel, there will come a time when you will wish you had three cute girls skating after you, blowing kisses and trying to get to know you.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year's Eve Jiaozi Party

When we first got a text message from Karen inviting us to a New Year’s Eve jiaozi party, I wasn’t too sure it was something I wanted to go to. For one thing, I’m not a night person and the idea of staying up until midnight fills me with dread, even on New Year’s Eve. I’d much rather have a nice dinner, watch a movie, and crawl into bed no later than 10. I’ve had many years of starting out the New Year feeling like my head has been squeezed through a meat grinder and then pounded into putty. What kind of way is that to begin a new year, when really wouldn’t it be better to start out the year in a condition that bodes well for new beginnings?? For another thing, I really dread get-togethers where the entertainment is to be provided by the guests. Maybe I’m a snob, maybe I’m socially challenged, maybe I prefer to eat a nice dinner, watch a movie, and crawl into bed by 10. Despite my initial reservations, culinary curiosity carried the day. I mean, when would I ever get such a chance again to learn how to make jiaozi (dumplings or gyoza or potstickers--take your pick, all names lead to jiaozi)?

Armed with root beer for the kids (the newest find at Jenny’s Import Store—and it made some of the others at the party positively swoon in anticipation of getting some for themselves), chocolate chip cookies (made with Dove milk chocolate, as chocolate chips are not to be found at Jenny’s) and cocoa fudge cookies for dessert (I know, it sounds kinda gross, all those sweets at the end of a blissful meal of jiaozi, but I was told to bring dessert), and the guitar Dave borrowed from Karen back in August and has touched exactly twice—the second time being the hour before we left for dinner—we marched through the bitterly cold evening to our New Year’s Eve party.

When we got there, we found Malicha (Tyler’s wife) and Dalai rolling out jiaozi dough and making at least five different kinds of filling. The apartment soon filled with the rest of the American teachers along with many Chinese friends; one and all sipped some kind of orange-colored punch and readied themselves to begin making jiaozi. The whole process is actually quite simple but I have to say the folding and pinching of the dumplings is something that you can’t possibly learn from a cookbook with as much ease or as much fun as from a real person. Malicha and Dalai made the dough (flour and water), kneading it and punching it and basically getting it into a long rope ready for the tables out in the dining room. Another person took over, laying the rope out on a cutting board and slicing off small bits of dough.

Emi and Malicha (and a bowl of filling--pork with mushrooms)

Rolling the dough into discs ready for filling.

Each bit is pressed into a little disc and then the next person took it up, rolling it into a very thin round shape, about three inches in diameter. These were then moved to the third table where all of us took turns stuffing the dough with one of the fillings.

Samuel getting the low-down on jiaozi filling--that's mutton with carrots, ginger, garlic, and green onions.

Grace's jiaozi--shaped like a little hat!

Lots of fillings, lots of stuffed jiaozi waiting to be boiled. See all the different shapes?

The best thing about stuffing was learning all the different ways people seal up the dumplings. Because jiaozi are the main dish served at Chinese New Year, all the Chinese at Karen’s apartment grew up making jiaozi with their families. And so from Kim I learned to make a little “hat” shape that looks a lot like the way some tortellini are wrapped, as well as how to make a mouse-shaped jiaozi; from Emi I learned the trick of folding the ends in so to keep all juices tightly sealed inside the dough; from Tyler (okay, not Chinese, but married to an expert jiaozi maker) I learned how to make the dumpling look like a cresent moon with a nice plump bottom to sit on.

Once stuffed and sealed, the dumpling are put into a pot of boiling water, where they mingle around until they are cooked, at which point they pop to the surface and are ready to be fished out and eaten. I think we made about 350 jiaozi, although they weren’t all eaten. They are best eaten with vinegar, soy sauce, and hot sauce, but frankly they are so tasty they can be eaten plain, too.

With the dinner over, the entertainment began. I tried to hide in a corner of the room—not that I had been asked to perform anything, and I would have died if anyone had tried to broach the subject—and pretend I wasn’t there. There were songs with guitars, songs with a Mongolian horse head fiddle, songs with a ukulele, songs with an electric keyboard and harmonica, songs with a flute. Dave gave a stellar guitar performance, turning rusty fingers and a rusty memory into a comedy routine that had everyone howling with laughter and his wife in tears from laughing so hard. Samuel and Grace happily jumped up when called upon to perform “their” song and belted out “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” with nary a quiver of shyness.

Mitchell in traditional Mongolian clothing playing the horse head fiddle. This is really beautiful and amazing music.

I guess all in all it was a lot of fun, although I don’t think I’ll be signing up for the next evening of entertainment. I do better as an appreciative, though silent, audience member.

After a parlor game of “Bippity Boppity Boo” (I’ll spare you the details but do not think you will make it through the year without learning it, as it is really funny, and we plan on springing it on unsuspecting guests to our house—you are warned!) we dragged the kids home. It was 10:30 (past my bedtime, remember?) and the kids were hopped up on cookies, punch, and silliness. Samuel kept nagging us to watch a movie (what????) and Grace had a meltdown. We got them into bed, cuddled with them, and they fell asleep at 11:55. Oh so close… In the end they weren’t too disappointed to hear they hadn’t made it to midnight. They really liked the idea of being able to say “Goodnight! See you next year!” I can’t say as I blamed them, as I enjoyed writing to some of you on our January 1st, across the great divide of the year, since it was 2008 for us and 2007 for my correspondents. Who needs guitars or flutes when you can be so easily entertained by a trick of time zones?

2008 began as it does for most people—sleeping in late and then after a hurried breakfast Dave and the kids raced out the door for two hours of ice skating with Tyler and Dalai. Okay, well the sleeping in part is normal. I lounged around the house and did my most favorite things: cleaned the floors and did the laundry. Whoopee! so much excitement. Dave came home from ice skating a broken man—tag on ice with two twenty-somethings resulted in three spectacular falls, including one in which he thought he was flying—his entire left side from shoulder to hip sprouting bruises as we looked at them. Today (Wednesday) his left hand was swollen enough and my nagging was so insistent that he had it x-rayed. No break, but a hairline crack and what we think the doctor meant as a sprain. Guess who is stuck with all the dishes until Dave’s hand heals? HAPPY NEW YEAR! We’re all glad it’s not broken, in any case, and the nice-smelling but turpentine- and kerosene-laden oil the doctor prescribed is working nicely to relieve Dave’s discomfort.

I hope everyone had a wonderful start to 2008 and we all wish you all the very best for the New Year.